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Saudi Multilateral Diplomacy

These are by all means strenuous times amid intractable problems. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown down the gauntlet to globalisation in two ways: through the rapidity of its transmission and drastic infection toll across the planet thanks to modern transportation and, secondly, through lockdowns, halts in production, economic turndowns and consequent national self-sufficiency drives that have fed the “identity politics” that has become increasingly prevalent over recent years.

The situation in this region has already been grave for some time. Iranian and Turkish actions against many Arab countries have generated lethal situations. They have turned the Houthis into a direct threat not just to Yemen and its people but to Saudi Arabia as well. 

For Saudi Arabia, all this has come at a time when it was engaged in one of the most ambitious social and economic reform processes the country has ever experienced. Described as the second establishment of the kingdom, this process is inherently complex, multitiered and sensitive in both its components and outputs. As though the abovementioned threats and dangers were not enough, plummeting oil prices struck before economic and structural reforms were able to fully diversify sources of income, production and labour. 

A major Saudi response to these challenges has been manifested in a multilateral diplomacy that draws on the kingdom’s status as a principle member of the G20 which is made up of the most economically powerful countries in the world. In the 2008 financial crisis that precipitated a global recession and unprecedented rates of unemployment, it was largely the cooperation among G20 members and between them and other members of the international community that led the way out of the crisis. The current crisis looks much bleaker. The world economy is verging on a recession of a magnitude unseen since the Great Depression that struck in 1929. Unfortunately, this crisis is unfolding at a time when international diplomacy and collective action is also in the midst of a “recession” thanks to the policies of US President Donald Trump and others like him who look askance at multilateral organisations and platforms such as the UN and WHO. So, even before the pandemic struck, countries were turning inward and ruptured transatlantic and transpacific bonds put international collaboration out of reach.

Riyadh’s turn at chairing the G20 might have been routine, observing the usual protocols involved in making preparations until the G20 summit convenes, at which point it comes time to take pictures, discuss certain issues and maybe even mend a few fences between some countries and others. But these are exceptional times in which virtually all countries of the world are at risk and none can address the dangers on their own, whether we speak of health dangers that threaten our lives and the lives of our loved ones, or economic dangers that threaten societies’ well-being and that of future generations. Contemporary humanity has never encountered such a difficult test. But nor is there a better starting point than the G20 for reversing the anti-globalisation and anti-interdependence trend. 

The Saudi leadership has certainly not shrunk from the responsibility. Unfortunately, it faces an unavoidable practical problem: it is difficult if not impossible for world leaders to leave their countries at a time when their citizens are dying by the thousands. Moreover, some of these leaders, themselves, fell prey to the virus in the course of the performance of their duties, such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Meanwhile, the figures are alarming. The world is about to cross the three million threshold on the number of infections and the 300,000 threshold on the number of deaths while the global economic losses are incalculable. 

Fortunately, as much as the pandemic took the world by surprise, modern science and technology was sufficiently advanced to spearhead the drive to produce solutions. More fortunately yet, Saudi Arabia was already equipped with the capacities of the fourth technological revolution — 5G technologies — that enabled it to host a month-long series of major international conferences that G20 members were able to attend. The kick off took place 26 March with the extraordinary G20 summit chaired by King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz, marking a new chapter in the history of the struggle against the pandemic by boosting international cooperation and exchange of expertise both to produce a vaccine and to furnish international support to the most vulnerable countries. Riyadh presented several initiatives during the summit foremost among which was the $500 million support package for the World Health Organisation, which more than compensates for Trump’s cut-off of funds for the international health organisation. After the summit, came a spate of meetings between G20 ministers of finance, heads of central banks and ministers of health, tourism, energy, trade and investment.

Saudi Arabia’s intensive multilateral diplomatic activities relieved the WHO from the extreme pressures it was under as a result of the blame game between the US and China, each accusing the other of causing the pandemic while other international organisations, such as the G7, stood agape in the face of a worsening crisis that required world action as opposed to a world frozen in the glare of the headlights. In rapidly moving from the summit to the level of ministers immediately involved with the crisis, Riyadh launched a definitive beginning of the cure. Above all, it stimulated a qualitative shift in the international handling of the crisis which has been manifested by a spirit of cooperation that inspired the many ceasefire initiatives we see today in several conflict zones, several multilateral exchanges of expertise and collaborations to produce a vaccine and to test various existing medicines; concerted efforts to promote and assist the gradual transition from crisis mode back to normal; and perhaps an international agreement on incentive policies for national economies that seek not only to help them overcome the immediate economic impacts of the crisis but also to resume their economic development processes. The Saudis may have also initiated a solution to the subsidiary crisis regarding the huge surplus in oil supply due to decreased demands for oil in these times of economic turmoil.

 A version of this article appears in print in the  30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

Dr. Abdel Moneim Said
Head of the Advisory Board

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